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As we approach another examination season, and the annual debate about standards and grading begins, the signs of a system in trouble are there for all to see. There's a shortage of examiners and moderators. It's becoming increasingly difficult to recruit primary teachers to take on Years 2 and 6, which bring with them the added responsibility of key stage testing. Cramming for the test rather than extending the curriculum has become the norm. Research shows that low-achievers, in particular, become demoralised and switch off. More and more sixth-formers, faced with the added burdens of AS-levels, need medication and support to cope with exam stress. In our testing system, the stakes are as high as the expectations placed upon it. It must meet targets, compare one school with another, one teacher with another, and one child with another, inform parents, universities and employers, while maintaining standards and public confidence. Critics believe it cannot cope with these demands; they say the system is at breaking point.

How often and for how long will children be tested in the course of their schooling?

It is estimated that English children will undertake up to 105 tests and exams during their school career. These include SATs - optional and mandatory - GCSEs, modular and vocational A-levels, as well as a whole range of class tests, including baseline assessment, reading, listening, language and IQ tests. Paul Strong, headteacher at William Farr school in Lincoln, estimates that students are out of lessons for at least 46 weeks in the course of their seven-year secondary careers and spend 150 hours actually sitting exams.

How have children been tested in the past? What is the rationale behind the current regime?

Once the 11-plus examination was scrapped by most local education authorities during the Sixties and Seventies, English children could go through to GCSE without facing an official test. This, combined with the development in the 1970s of child-centred education, led to a deep-seated concern about standards and curriculum as schools from one end of the country to the other seemed to offer wildly differing fare. Between 1968 and 1977, the Black papers, written by the likes of Brian Cox and Rhodes Boyson, called for a return to selection, traditional methods and more parental choice, and suggested testing at seven, 11 and 14. From the left, Prime Minister Jim Callaghan's famous Ruskin college speech in 1976 criticised child-centred methods for eroding academic standards and suggested that teachers did not have exclusive rights to control education.

The seeds for strengthening the role of central government were sown with the 1988 Education Reform Act. Paul Black, emeritus professor of science education at King's College London, says: "What we have now derives from the fear of ministers in the Seventies and Eighties that the people running schools were not to be trusted. It was felt increasingly that if you had good tests then the teachers would fall back in line."

The current set-up also stems from the belief that parental choice based on test results would drive educational reform and lead to the survival of the fittest. Although the current government might like to distance itself from such neo-liberal ideology, it has strengthened the testing regime, seeing it as a convenient managerial tool for monitoring schools and a way of creating targets to justify expenditure.

How does the English system compare to the rest of the UK, Europe and the US?

English children are the most tested in the world. Even within the UK, devolved governments have opted for a different approach. Scotland has never had key stage testing and league tables. There is a bank of national tests, but teachers draw on these as and when they feel individual pupils are ready to take them.

Richard Daugherty, professor of education at the University of Wales Aberystwyth, says the Scottish have always introduced reform on the premise that "their system is fundamentally good and in need of improving rather than falling apart and in need of radical change".

In Wales, authority-by-authority league tables exist, but school-by-school results have never been published. And since the establishment of the Curriculum and Assessment Authority for Wales, the Welsh have been edging even further away from the English system, abandoning key stage 1 testing and now looking to change key stage 2.

In Germany, all testing, even the Abitur, the German equivalent of A-level, is done in-house, that is, by the school in partnership with the local authority. However, concern over falling standards is driving the Government to consider introducing national mandatory tests. The French have always given great weight to public examination, but the only exam that really matters is the Baccalaureate at 18. However, the French do not have a "high stakes" system which judges schools publicly based on results.

In the United States, the passion for testing mirrors our own. It is now impossible to obtain federal money for state teaching programmes unless states monitor how well schools are performing - not a million miles away from our key stages system. Many states now carry out tests to monitor pupil progress and publish report cards on schools based largely on test results. High school graduation or promotion into the year above often hangs on a single test. Use of the advanced placement tests, national, subject-based tests like A-levels aimed at the top 15-20 per cent, has also grown enormously in the past 10 years.

How does the testing system affect the way children are taught?

High-stakes testing means that teachers inevitably teach to the tests, narrowing the curriculum accordingly. Ofsted's subject reports earlier this year showed that valuable learning work in primary science and geography has been squeezed, leading to pupils underachieving in those subjects.

Music, art and PE have been reduced to 20-minute and half-hour slots.

Hilary Bills, head of Holyhead primary, Wednesbury, West Midlands, says:

"Every school, bit by bit, has tailored the curriculum to the test.

Standards have not gone up. We teach to the test better."

In secondary schools, the rollercoaster of exams from GCSE through to A2 means many teachers cut out extracurricular activities simply to get through the exam syllabus in time. Paul Strong at William Farr believes people were misled to think that A-levels were studied over two years. "In reality," he said, "we have no more than five terms to cover the ground."

Frank Vigon, head of Turton school, Bolton, says staff are having to push students harder than ever, teaching in lunchtimes and after school, just to get through what needs to be done. "There's just too much to cover in the time available," he says.

How does it affect the way pupils learn?

When tests pervade the ethos of the classroom, test performance is more highly valued than what is being learned, according to the Assessment Reform Group (ARG) in its recent pamphlet "Testing, Motivation and Learning". For example, children working to tests tend to learn to a particular format. If they are tested in a different - but not more difficult - format, they lose 20 to 30 per cent of their marks. Dylan Wiliam, professor of educational assessment at King's College London, and a member of the ARG, says that 25 per cent of children who reach level 4 at key stage 2 fail to make that level a year later when taking optional key stage tests at the end of Year 7. This is because they have not been "drilled" in the same way.

A study by the Evidence for Policy and Practice Information Co-ordinating Centre, set up by the Government to review research findings, shows that repeated testing tends to widen the gap between low and high achievers (see resources). It is motivating for those who anticipate success, but low-achieving pupils put less and less effort into their work because of lowered self-esteem. Acknowledging such negative influences, some schools are trying to create more space between tests. Varndean secondary school, in Brighton, has abolished all optional testing prior to key stage 3 exams.

Frank Green, principal and chief executive of Leigh city technology college in Dartford (see case study), is lowering the profile of key stage 3 SATs and bringing them forward to the end of Year 8, to give GCSE pupils three years to pursue their chosen subjects.

What is the emotional impact of testing?

For some children, testing can be an affirmation of their achievement and abilities, and they become highly motivated by success. For others, the effects of repeated testing can be wholly negative. ChildLine receives 800 calls a year from pupils suffering exam stress, some of them as young as nine. Norman Titus, ChildLine's director for Yorkshire and the north-east, says that children often see failure as catastrophic for their future.

"They tell us, 'if I don't pass this, there is nothing else in life'. They come to see exams as the only measure of their worth."

Too much testing may actually turn students off a subject. Research among 14-year-olds in Northern Ireland studying maths, English and science for the "transfer test" to grammar school shows that, while there is no difference in their enjoyment and interest in the subject beforehand, the group who sit the test view the subjects less favourably than the group who doesn't, even though almost all of them pass.

Teachers are also becoming exhausted by the relentless nature of the testing regime. David Bell, the chief inspector of schools, said recently that national targets for school improvement are making teachers feel threatened and defeatist, and turning them into cynics. Heads say growing numbers of students take medication for stress. Frank Vigon, at Turton school, says more and more of his pupils are going to the doctor for medication due to pressure of work; he has decided to bring in a sixth-form counsellor.

Paul Strong, at William Farr, saw three of his brightest sixth-formers suffer anxiety attacks during AS exams last year. One of them, Vanessa Kelly, now in Year 13, says: "I couldn't concentrate, my brain was jammed.

This year, every holiday has been fully taken up with catching up on essays and revising. The teachers do what they can to help, but last year I was on ProPlus just to keep me going. This year I'm on anxiety medication (tranquillisers). I used to play a lot of netball and tennis and go horse riding, but I've had to give all of that up. I am very tired and the teachers are frantic."

New research into the impact of testing at key stage 1 has shown that even very young children are showing signs of stress. Vivian Hill, director of professional educational psychology training at the Institute of Education, London, says that a survey of 100 primary schools across the country showed that teachers believe many children are affected by stress. One in eight were seriously stressed, becoming clingy, vomiting, wetting themselves and displaying regressive behaviour. Children at schools in social priority areas were more likely to be distressed by key stage testing, as were their teachers.

What is the cost to schools in financial and administrative terms?

A secondary school of around 1,000 pupils spends more than pound;100,000 on testing each year - more, according to Paul Strong, than William Farr's capitation allowance, and more than it will spend on books and resources.

Mr Strong's A-level bill alone went up by pound;11,000 last year. His staffing costs have also risen. "Two years ago my examinations officer came to me and said, 'I'm not doing this any more. I cannot do the job on my own. I gave him another member of staff. This year, he has a second. That's another pound;12-pound;13,000." Mr Strong also loses the use of the gym and sports hall for three months every year. "In two years' time I'll have 340 pupils taking public exams. Where will I put them? I've thought of hiring the Lincolnshire showground."

The annual cost of exams and tests has shot up to more than pound;200 million, a 50 per cent rise since Labour came to power in 1997. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the exam watchdog, has ordered an inquiry into the burgeoning cost. But exam boards are currently running at a deficit that is caused, they say, by the huge costs of implementing changes in policy and of processing more than 24 million scripts each year.

How foolproof is the marking system and where do examiners come from?

A shortage of examiners is threatening the quality of the marking system.

This year, the exam boards are looking for 60,000 examiners, an increase of 10,000 on last year. English, religious studies and ICT are three of the subjects suffering the biggest shortages. However, an extra pound;6 million is being offered through the QCA to tempt people on board, taking marking away from the kitchen table and into designated marking centres.

Examiners can earn around pound;900 over the course of the exam season, a modest fee for the effort. Traditionally, marking scripts and becoming an examiner was seen as part of professional development, perhaps a route to becoming a head of department. School pressures mean many teachers no longer see it this way. Exam boards were criticised last year for taking on trainee teachers and graduates as examiners. However, the QCA hopes its new centre-based marking scheme will be the first step to making professional what Ken Boston, its new chief executive, describes as a cottage industry.

The idea is that teachers will mark scripts together in centres, possibly their own school, where they can give each other support and speed up the process. Exam boards are hoping that this will enable experienced examiners to take on double their marking load. But schools warn that they will not be able to release staff for the time required (up to 10 days) because of the shortage of good supply teachers.

As well as dealing with marker shortages, the QCA has also introduced a new code of practice which restricts the power of exam board heads to alter grade boundaries unilaterally. This follows last year's furore, which was caused by last-minute changes to the marking guidelines in some subjects made by Ron McLone, OCR's chief executive, without consulting his chief examiners. The QCA has also had to investigate a growing number of allegations of malpractice by schools over exams. Headline cases like that of Alan Mercer, former head of South Borough primary, Kent, who was jailed for three months for altering pupils' national test papers, are a clear indication of the pressure schools feel they are under. In 2001, QCA investigated 270 cases of alleged malpractice leading to 11 annulments. In 2002, 479 cases were reported, almost double, though leading to only seven annulments.

Are children likely to be tested more or less in the future?

Many believe we have reached a watershed in the English testing system and that at some point the Government will move to a system with fewer external exams, more internal assessment and flexibility. The Secondary Heads Association believes a shift from external to internal assessment is "an idea whose time has come" and has put forward a proposal for "chartered examiners" - specially trained teachers who mark and grade tests. But many heads, teachers and researchers are calling for a radical shift away from the big-bang exam towards continuous assessment.

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